The OAS and Overcoming Poverty

1.   Overcoming poverty is still the major challenge for the hemisphere.

2.   Overcoming poverty: a political priority

3.   Anti-poverty activities of the OAS

4.   A new role for the OAS in overcoming poverty.

1.0 Overcoming poverty is still the major challenge for the hemisphere.

1.1 Over the past fifteen years, Latin America and the Caribbean have experienced far-reaching political and economic changes that have manifest themselves in the consolidation of democracy and in a thorough process of macroeconomic adjustment and structural reform. As a result, we find today for the most part governments that come to power through the electoral process, and societies where the rule of law has been strengthened and where progress in respect for human rights is protected by constitutional guarantees. The new economic stability that has been achieved as a result of the adjustment process is reflected in positive growth rates, a more dynamic export sector, significantly reduced inflation, rising foreign investment and new impetus towards economic integration.

1.2 In spite of these achievements, however, progress on the social front has been advancing at a notably slower pace. In effect, at the mid-point of the present decade, some 39% of all Latin American and Caribbean households were living in poverty - a figure that was higher than the 35% that prevailed at the beginning of the 1980s. In absolute terms, it is calculated that 210 million people within the region are poor, and this is a record high figure. The poverty phenomenon in the Americas has a number of special features, among which are its increasingly urban nature - 65% of the poor are city dwellers - and its close relationship to unequal income distribution. In fact, it has been noted that a significant proportion of poverty in the region is the consequence of the uneven distribution of wealth: in some countries, the richest 10% of the population receives more than 50% of national income, while the poorest 40% receive less than 10%.

1.3 Among the most dramatic manifestations of poverty are the precarious employment situation of vast segments of the population, where open unemployment affects more than 16% of those who are considered economically active, and where employment in the informal sector of the economy accounts for 55% of non-farm workers, a group typified by low incomes, unstable jobs, lack of social protection and low productivity. The most perverse effects of the situation fall upon the groups most at risk, and in particular on women and children. Women are disproportionately represented among the poor, the unemployed and the under-employed, and a significant portion of them must in addition play the role of household head, particularly among indigenous peoples. As to children, not only must they face the traditional risks of poverty-related mortality and morbidity, but they are now exposed to the damaging effects of various forms of exploitation, such as sexual abuse, involvement in armed conflicts, child labor and the temptation to engage in criminal activities.

1.4 The Latin American and Caribbean Social Development Commission has singled out the poverty that afflicts nearly one half of the region's inhabitants as the major obstacle to development, and a threat to social peace and political stability. It adds that the consolidation of democracy in the region stands under a threat, if constitutional governments elected by the people cannot show themselves capable of effectively improving living conditions for their poor. It concludes by warning that if we do not launch a frontal assault on poverty, we cannot discount the risk of new forms of subversion or authoritarian adventures.

1.5 The priority that has been assigned to combating poverty has been accompanied during the present decade by a profound re-thinking of the role of the State in these efforts. Generally speaking, we have moved beyond the concepts that held sway at one time or another during the region's recent history: the State as an all-powerful, centralized "planner", or the "minimalist" State that leaves to the market most of the task of allocating resources for social development. Currently, a number of approaches are being formulated and tested in an effort to make State action more effective and more efficient, and to encourage a real participation by civil society in designing, applying and monitoring public policies and social programs. Decentralization and desconcentration, social investment funds, and new mechanisms to ensure greater citizen participation in all stages of community undertakings are examples of these new approaches.

1.6 The major structural reforms that have been undertaken in the region - trade liberalization, tax reform, financial reform, privatization, labor reform and pension reform - have at last produced the macroeconomic balance that was necessary, and have allowed growth rates to recover. Yet it is well understood that higher growth is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for reducing inequalities. While it is essential to maintain and even to go further in some elements of economic reform, it is equally crucial to give more priority to social reforms, in order to ensure greater efficiency and equity in the provision of social services, and to invest significantly more resources in the development of human and social capital, compared with the emphasis that has been devoted over recent years to traditional forms of capital accumulation. It must be recalled that human capital has to do with the quality of human resources, while social capital relates to qualitative elements such as shared values, culture and the ability to create networks and synergy within society.

1.7 Creating human capital implies investing systematically and continuously in such areas as education, health and nutrition. As we approach the end of the century, investment in education has in fact become one of the most profitable forms of investment, in light of the key role that education plays not only in the productive process, but also in building citizenship and underpinning democracy.

2.0 Overcoming poverty: a political priority

2.1 Overcoming poverty has now assumed a high political priority within the overall concerns of government, society, and international agencies, as is clear from the following initiatives and activities that have been carried out in recent years.

2.2 The Heads of State and Government, at the 1994 Summit of the Americas in Miami, gave priority to resolving poverty issues.

2.3 In the United Nations framework, a World Summit on Social Development was held in Copenhagen, in March of 1995, to examine and seek solutions to poverty issues worldwide.

2.4 Within our hemisphere, there have been a number of initiatives as well, such as:

(i) The meeting of ministers responsible for social development under the Rio Group, held in Buenos Aires, in May 1995;

(ii) The Regional Technical Meeting in follow-up to the agreements of the World Summit on Social Development, held in Quito, in November 1995;

(iii) The Inter-American Technical Seminar on Programs for Overcoming Poverty, held in Buenos Aires, in December 1995;

(iv) The Conference on Social Development, as part of the Ibero-American Summit of Heads of State and Government, held in Iquique in 1996;

(v) The Caribbean Ministerial Meeting for the Eradication of Poverty, held in Port of Spain in October-November, 1996; and

(vi) The First High-Level Meeting on Social Development, held under OAS auspices in Washington, in February 1997.

2.5 In order to ensure follow-up to the Copenhagen meeting, it was agreed that the regional commissions of the United Nations, together with regional organizations and development banks, should hold a high-level policy meeting every two years to assess progress in applying the Summit's decisions, to exchange views and experiences and to take appropriate measures. In this regard, the First Regional Conference in Follow-Up to the World Summit on Social Development was held in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in March 1997. It was organized by ECLAC , with support from the OAS and the IDB, among others, and undertook a review of strategies to be followed in combating poverty at the hemispheric level.

2.6 Within this setting, there is today a clear need to join efforts and coordinate activities in the search for greater efficiency, impact and synergy in combating poverty. The bodies of the inter-American system will have to redouble their efforts to ensure that their activities are truly complementary, and to draw upon the comparative advantages and areas of specialization that exist in the system's various agencies. In this respect, the OAS will continue its efforts to design anti-poverty initiatives that will help to reinforce and mobilize a regional strategy for overcoming this scourge. This is the thrust of the activities it now has underway jointly with the IDB and with other regional and international organizations.

3.0 Anti-poverty activities of the OAS

3.1 In the face of this challenge, the General Assembly, the Permanent Council and the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States have adopted a number of action measures to support member countries in their efforts to overcome poverty. They have already generated a wide range of valuable experience in this regard, as detailed below.

3.2 The member countries of the OAS have defined the conquest of poverty as one of their major objectives. The Protocols of Washington 91992) and of Managua (1993), the Special Session of the General Assembly in Mexico (1994), the Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Santa Cruz de la Sierra (1996), the Declaration of Montrois (1995) and the Consensus of Panama (1996) have all served to reiterate that social development is one of today's fundamental challenges, for our member countries and for the region as a whole.

3.3 The Unit for Social Development and Education (UDSE). In support of hemispheric efforts to promote social development, the Secretary General of the OAS created the UDSE in June of 1996, with the central purpose of supporting member state governments in formulating social and education policies, in implementing social and educational programs and measures, and in encouraging hemispheric dialogue on the problems associated with social development, overcoming poverty, and promoting education, manpower training and employment. UDSE provides secretariat services to the Social Development Committee of the Inter-American Council for Integral Development (CIDI) and as such is responsible for making all arrangements necessary to the Committee's functioning. UDSE also works with the CIDI Executive Secretariat in carrying out technical cooperation activities in member states of the Organization. UDSE works in close association with the various dependencies of the OAS General Secretariat and the OAS specialized bodies. As well, it has consultative relationships for exchange and mutual support with international and regional organizations devoted to technical and financial cooperation that are active in the fields of education, employment, social integration and overcoming poverty.

3.4 The Inter-American Council for Integral Development (CIDI) of the OAS, through its Permanent Executive Committee (CEPCIDI), has established a Social Development Committee, the central purpose of which is to promote sustainable social development and to overcome poverty. At its first high-level meeting, convened in Washington in February 1997 for the purpose of defining a set of social development policies for the OAS, ministers and heads of delegation of member countries agreed upon an Inter-American Program to Combat Poverty and Discrimination. It has two chief objectives. The first is to strengthen inter-American dialogue on economic and social development, so as to promote the analysis and exchange of information and experiences in countries of the region, and to engage in this process not only the economic and political but also the social sectors of each country. The second is to identify specific areas for cooperation within the framework of the OAS and other international agencies and institutions, with a view to stimulating institutional development and modernizing social policy so as to promote social investment that will benefit the most needy segments of society. This Inter-American Program is an integral part of the OAS Strategic Plan for Partnership for Development 1997-2001. It includes a Plan of Action covering the next four years, within which four substantive areas of priority have been identified: (a) modernizing public institutions and social management, for 1998; (b) strengthening mechanisms for the participation of civil society in overcoming poverty and discrimination, for 1999; (c) promoting and financing social investment, for the year 2000; and (c) for the year 2001, strategies and programs to overcome marginalization and discrimination against indigenous peoples and other groups at risk.

3.5 The Inter-American Program to Combat Poverty and Discrimination was subsequently approved in March 1997 by the Second Regular Meeting of the Inter-American Council for Integral Development (CIDI) and was ratified by the OAS General Assembly at its twenty-seventh regular session in Lima, in June 1997. The UDSE is responsible for providing technical secretariat services for these meetings, and for maintaining the institutional memory, while providing periodic reports to member states, through CEPCIDI, on the progress achieved. Similarly, it is expected to respond to requests for studies and for coordinating the preparation of technical documents that will serve as a basis for the work of implementing the guidelines set out in the Inter-American Program. Finally, the UDSE has the mandate to establish and keep updated a database of information on social development issues, to support actions by the member states.

3.6 Partnership cooperation for social development has been the major focus of the support provided to member countries as a whole over the last few years. These efforts have included the following activities conducted by the Unit for Social Development and Education (UDSE).

3.7 Support for social investment funds, through the Social Network of Latin America and the Caribbean. The Third Annual Conference of the Social Network was held in Panama in 1996, and decided to establish a Permanent Technical Secretariat, a task that was formally assigned to the OAS Unit for Social Development and Education, which had been cooperating with the Network since its creation at the beginning of the decade. On the basis of the Declaration of Panama, a work plan for 1997 was drawn up, as a framework for a series of cooperative activities to be carried out this year, and which have represented the focus of work for the Social Network's technical secretariat.

In close cooperation with the Office of the Chair of the Coordinating Committee and with the member countries of the Coordinating Committee, activities have been pursued in three primary areas.

The first has been to promote the exchange of experience and knowledge through the process of on-the-job training and horizontal cooperation. The so-called "internships" for social investment fund officials have been very productive, and reports suggest that they have borne excellent results. During the year, the OAS funded 30 internships.

A second area of activity has been to plan, organize, conduct and assess training seminars and workshops. During 1997 a number of such events were held: (a) Seminar on the InterRed, held in Roatán, Honduras, in February, attended by 31 participants from 15 member countries. (b) Seminar on monitoring social programs and projects, held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in March, attended by 122 participants from 18 member countries. (c) Seminar on evaluating the impact of social programs and projects, held in San José, Costa Rica, in July, attended by 146 participants from 18 member countries; and (d) Seminar on social participation and municipal capacity building for overcoming poverty, held in Mexico City in September, attended by 61 participants from 21 member countries.

As can be seen from these four activities, some 400 officials from social investment funds and institutions have been given training in techniques for combating poverty in the region. The OAS contributed a portion of the funding for these activities.

The third field of action has been to serve as Technical Secretariat by providing direct organizational support and assistance for the technical, documentary and secretarial work of the four meetings of the Coordinating Committee that were held during the year (Roatán, Honduras, in February; Washington , DC, in May; Mexico City in September; and Buenos Aires in November). Similarly, the OAS cooperated with the Social Development Ministry of Argentina in hosting, financing and providing technical secretariat services for the Fourth Annual Conference of the Social Network (Buenos Aires, November, 1997). As well, it
assembled and disseminated worldwide information on the Social Network, its aims, functions and activities. The UDSE publishes quarterly reports on its activities, which are distributed to all countries in hard copy and via the Internet.

3.8 Course on social policy training and management in the Caribbean. The Unit organized two courses on social policy training and management for member countries of the Caribbean, in cooperation with the IDB's Inter-American Institute for Social Development (INDES) and the University of the West Indies (UWI). The courses, held in Trinidad and Tobago and in the Bahamas, were given to more than 90 middle-ranking and senior managers and social policy personnel from governmental and non-governmental bodies. The courses were conducted by professors from UWI and INDES. The project is being supervised by UDSE and cooperation funds are used to offer bursaries for participants and to cover teaching costs, while INDES and UWI provide the actual instruction.

3.9 Regional conference on youth enterprise and development. The Unit worked together with the CARICOM Secretariat and the Ministry of Education and Youth Affairs of Barbados to host a regional conference on Youth Enterprise and Development, held in Barbados this past October. The conference was co-sponsored by the United Nations Youth Fund. This was the fifth biennial conference on youth enterprise and training in non-formal skills that the OAS has sponsored in the Caribbean region since 1988. The Unit provided 45 bursaries to the national directors of youth development and to leaders of youth groups in the region. The aim of the conference was to provide an opportunity for the exchange of information and experience with models for promoting youth development and entrepreneurship, and to assess areas for future focus in the program. The conference included a series of workshops on project design, gender issues, networking, collecting funds, Internet resources and youth participation in civil society.

3.10 Conference on youth and cooperatives: "The Third Millennium Belongs to Us". The Unit worked together with the International Alliance of Cooperatives and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture in co-hosting this conference. The event was held in November in Mexico City, jointly with the annual meeting of the International Alliance of Cooperatives. The Conference was a preparatory meeting for the Continental Forum on Youth and Cooperatives, to be held in 1998. In support of the Conference, the OAS is sponsoring publication of a web page on the Internet, with links to other sites dealing with youth, employment, cooperatives and entrepreneurship.

3.11 The Americas Fund To extend support for OAS work in member countries, the Unit has undertaken to explore an initiative with a view to measuring private sector interest in social development. An initial survey of corporate employers in the United States has been launched, and results are expected by the end of the year. On the basis of these results, the Unit will prepare a preliminary document suggesting future lines of action under this initiative. The project is expected to run in parallel with other, similar initiatives that are now in the planning stage, within the Executive Secretariat for Integral Development, aimed at the possible creation of a foundation in the OAS that would provide partnership cooperation with the private sector. In this context, the Unit is looking into establishment of a trust fund, tentatively called the "Youth Entrepreneurship Fund of the Americas", to support training in business skills and the development of micro-businesses in the Caribbean and the Americas.

3.12 Prospectus for the "Youth Entrepreneurship Fund of the Americas". UDSE is developing this initiative in the hope of enlisting private sector support and involvement in providing skills training for young, small-scale entrepreneurs in the Caribbean and the Americas. To this end, the Fund offers a framework in which government and the private sector can work together to select and develop model business administration programs. The significance of such public-private collaboration lies in the potential for offering practical training and more accessible and effective programs, for example, in giving young entrepreneurs the skills they will need to carry out effective business strategies, and creating an environment that encourages enterprise start-up and growth. The program stresses the importance of having a pool of properly trained personnel, as a priority policy for private sector development.

3.13 International Meeting and Regional Consultation on Social Investment Funds. The Unit sponsored, in cooperation with the World Bank's Economic Development Institute, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Social Network of Latin America and the Caribbean, the organizing of an international seminar on social investment funds, that was held in Washington last May. Its primary objectives were to analyze the experience that has been built up over a decade of working with social investment funds, to assess their impact on efforts to eradicate poverty, and to facilitate the regional and international exchange of ideas and expertise among social funds. More than 200 delegates from all parts of the world took part in the event. The Unit also organized a regional consultative meeting on the last day of the seminar, at OAS headquarters, that involved the Social Network of Latin America and the Caribbean, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, and that produced a number of significant recommendations for social investment funds in this region.

3.14 Cooperation with the Caribbean Development Bank During the year, the Unit carried on negotiations with the Caribbean Development Bank in Barbados, with a view to enhancing cooperation in the area of youth training and in the development of social investment funds for the Caribbean region. Through the Social Network of Latin America and the Caribbean, the OAS has enjoyed access to the extensive expertise of social fund practitioners, and has at the same time contributed to planning work within the Caribbean Development Bank, and to regional mechanisms for monitoring the basic needs of investment funds.

3.15 Caribbean Ministerial Meeting on Poverty. The Unit took an active part in the Caribbean Ministerial Meeting on Poverty, held under the auspices of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Subregional Office for the Caribbean, and other international organizations. The purpose of the meeting was to coordinate strategic programs for the eradication of poverty in the region, and to lay the basis for future OAS work over the longer term. The results of these national and subregional consultations will be used as input to the General Secretariat's Inter-American Program to Combat Poverty.

3.16 Inter-American Working Group on Youth Development. The Unit has continued to take part, along with officials of the Unit for the Promotion of Democracy and CICAD, in the Inter-American Working Group on Youth Development, an inter-institutional forum that is examining ways of expanding cooperation on youth development programs. A joint financial profile has been prepared and is under consideration for a series of pilot projects on micro-enterprise, social development, training for young workers, and funding for youth groups through small donations. Financing will be provided by the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Youth Foundation and the Inter-American Foundation; the OAS has not as yet committed resources for this purpose. Pilot projects are under consideration for Ecuador and Paraguay, as well as one for the countries of Central America and the Caribbean.

3.17 Agreement between the OAS and ECLAC. Under an agreement signed between the two organizations, the Unit has been working with ECLAC to develop a "Program of Social Policies in Latin America and the Caribbean" (PROPOSAL), the main purpose of which is to strengthen institutional capacities and human resources in countries seeking to design and implement social policies and to formulate social programs and projects. During the past year, work has continued on research projects in the areas of social, health and education management, drawing on the services of short-term consultants. In particular, support was provided for the following projects: (a) Programming and assessment of social programs and projects for creating a system of institutional support, based on cost-impact analysis methodologies. (b) Methodological review and supplementary analysis required for projects related to the inter-American course on training and evaluation, sponsored by the OAS and ECLAC. (c) Estimates of effective demand for health care at the municipal or community level. (d) Incorporation of morbidity rates into studies on social development at the local level; and (e) development of systems of informational indicators for the design of social projects. By means of this mechanism, work is continuing in the social research area, and the results are being publicized through joint publications.

4.0 A new role for the OAS in overcoming poverty.

4.1 In light of the political mandates from its member countries, the experience that has been acquired by the Organization's own bodies, and the efforts of the General Secretariat, a new role is emerging for the OAS, with increased emphasis on its capacity to serve as a coordination forum and to provide technical support to countries in their efforts to overcome poverty. This new role can be defined in terms of three areas of action: as a political forum, as a force for strengthening inter-American cooperation, and as an instrument for promoting institutional coordination at the hemispheric level.

4.2 Political forum. The OAS should work through CIDI, as its high-level political forum, to promote inter-American dialogue, the exchange of experience, and partnership cooperation, and to move forward in the search for solutions to the social problems afflicting the peoples of the hemisphere, with particular attention to overcoming poverty and discrimination. Specifically, CIDI's Social Development Committee has as its primary purposes those of strengthening inter-American dialogue in support of policy formulation, and undertaking cooperative action in social issues aimed at overcoming poverty and discrimination. UDSE will provide technical secretariat services to meetings of this Committee. Member countries may wish to strengthen that body further.

4.3 Strengthening the Partnership for Development. Working through CIDI and UDSE, the Organization will provide support to member states that so request in formulating and implementing projects for cooperation in the social field, in particular those aimed at overcoming poverty. To this end, the Organization's capacity to promote horizontal cooperation needs to be reinforced, so that it can serve as an intermediary in identifying the supply of and the demand for cooperation. For 1998, the Partnership Program of CIDI will be put into operation. UDSE will provide the technical support needed to carry out several specific projects. This type of action could be extended further in coming years.

4.4 Promoting and expanding institutional coordination. The Social Development Committee, as part of the existing framework of cooperation and coordination between the OAS and the various bodies, organs and entities of the inter-American system and the United Nations, such as the IDB, PAHO, IICA, UNDP, ECLAC, CARICOM, and other regional and subregional agencies, institutions and programs in the hemisphere, should promote and expand coordination and complementarity of activities and resources on behalf of social development projects, in particular those aimed at overcoming poverty. Similarly, the Social Development Committee will encourage the establishment of mechanisms of information and coordination with the Inter-American Conference of Labor Ministers, the Inter-American Forum of Education Ministers, the Conference of the Social Network of Latin America and the Caribbean, the hemispheric meeting of ministers responsible for science and technology, the Inter-American Commission of Women, and other relevant forums. These mechanisms will be designed to facilitate complementarity among their efforts and to help them to take a comprehensive view of their objectives, activities and commitments in the social development area. UDSE is already engaged in such activities, and these could be expanded and reinforced.